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Content archived on 2024-06-16

Determiner Interpretation in Growing Grammar: Normal and Impaired Development

Final Activity Report Summary - DIGG (Determiner Interpretation in Growing Grammar: Normal and Impaired Development)

The aim of the project was to understand how children acquire determiners, such as 'every', 'the', 'a', 'both' and 'some'. In theoretical semantics, three components of determiner meaning have been identified, namely truth-conditions, implicatures and presuppositions. The truth-conditions inform us whether a sentence is true or false in a context in which it is uttered and implicatures and presuppositions account for cases where adults feel a sentence to be infelicitous, rather than true or false. When someone says, for example, 'Every head of mine hurts', or 'Some of the giraffes have long necks' an adult hearer would perceive the sentences to be 'strange'. These responses arise because of the presuppositions and implicatures associated with these determiners. One of our goals, therefore, was to find out whether children would also feel these sentences to be awkward.

Our most important finding was that children acquisition of presuppositions and implicatures did not reach adult competence even until after they entered school, nevertheless some presuppositions were acquired earlier than others. In theoretical semantics, it has been claimed that some presuppositions are part of the meaning of a word. Other presuppositions, on the other hand, arise because they are 'better' ways of expressing the same thing. For the above example with head, for example, a better way of describing the actual world would be to say 'My head hurts'. The existence of an alternative expression would cause the sentence with 'every' to be infelicitous. One of our findings was that children did acquire the presuppositions that were part of the meaning of the determiners earlier than the derived kind, supporting one of the semantic/pragmatic theories.